Tories facing wipe out in the town halls

Challenge for the councils: Almost 3,000 seats up for grabs in polls which will offer vital clues to outcome of general election
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The Independent Online
The three main political parties launch their campaigns this week for next month's local elections in a contest whose results will be pored over as predictors for the next general election.

The contest - the smallest in the four-yearly local election cycle - is unlikely to produce dramatic changes of control, but is likely to see Labour and the Liberal Democrats gain control of hung councils whose numbers have risen sharply in the wake of years of declining Conservative fortunes.

The Conservatives are defending just four local authorities where they have outright control, all of which, including the Prime Minister's Huntingdon, they stand to lose if last week's Tamworth by-election swing is replicated on 2 May.

The Liberal Democrats are confident of underlining their position as the second party in local government, pushing the Conservatives further into third place, while Labour will be keeping a close eye on contests in Basildon, Peterborough, Milton Keynes, Oldham and Rochdale, all of which contain marginal parliamentary seats which Labour will want to claim at the general election.

The Conservatives' traditional campaign message - "Tory councils cost you less" - will be harder for them to carry now they control a mere 15 of the 400 English local authorities after the debacle of last year's local elections. Labour's will tell electors that "The Tories hit you where it hurts" concentrating their fire on service cuts and sharp council tax increases which Labour argues have swallowed half this month's income tax cuts.

This year just under 3,000 seats are being contested against 13,000 last year. A third of the seats are in the 36 metropolitan authorities, a third in 100 English districts, while all the seats are being contested in 13 new "shadow" unitary authorities which will take office next April.

Conservative hopes of proving their fortunes have turned the corner are pinned on retaining the four they still control (Huntingdon, Broxbourne, Runnymede and Macclesfield), gaining control of Bourne-mouth and Poole while making gains in Brighton and Hove. In these three southern coastal towns all the seats are up, and the Conservatives' performance comes off their dismal showing last year, rather than against the 1992 results when most of the seats up this time were last contested. Then, immediately after the general election, the Tories had their best local election results for a decade, making seats last contested then harder to defend. Bournemouth and Poole, however, are targets for the Liberal Democrats to take outright control.

The Conservatives will also be seeking to cling to Solihull, their last remaining toehold of power in the 36 metropolitan authorities and which they control with support from independent ratepayers. A more likely result, however, is that in a string of metropolitan authorities, such as Manchester, Sheffield and Newcastle they will face the humiliation of seeing their last remaining councillors defeated, leaving them with no representation at all.

Labour may face difficulties in Liverpool, where the Liberal Democrats have been advancing, and in Walsall and Leicester, where furious divisions in the local parties may rebound on them. Portsmouth, which it did well to take last year, could also fall.

Labour could, however, make gains in Oldham and Rochdale if the Liberal Democrats do not perform well and has Wyre Forest, Cambridge and overall control in Trafford clearly in its sights, along with Peterborough, currently the Commons seat of Brian Mawhinney, the Con- servative party chairman, who has departed for safer pastures elsewhere. It might also claim Basildon, where David Amess, the sitting Conservative, has also jumped ship.

John Redwood, last year's leadership challenger, may well see his Wokingham fall to the Liberal Democrats, who stand a good chance also of taking once blue, but now hung councils, such as Tunbridge Wells, Mole Valley Southend and Havant.

Liberal Democrat success and Conservative failure in such southern seats, however, will depend crucially on whether last year's "Blair effect" of voters switching to Labour rather than the Liberal Democrats, is repeated. Finally the Conservatives in Stratford-upon-Avon could face the double humiliation of seeing the once Tory, now hung, council go to the Liberal Democrats - having already lost their MP, Alan Howarth to Labour.

Parties clash in England's town and country

Almost 3,000 seats are being fought in 150 authorities, along with some 50 by-elections. Labour and the Tories are both defending some 1,200 seats and the Liberal Democrats almost 450.

One third are in the 36 metropolitan authorities, Labour defending 442, the Conservatives 268 and the Liberal Democrats 100. The Conservatives defend 748 in shire districts Labour 397 and the Liberal Democrats 238. Thirteen new unitary auth orities - Bournemouth, Brighton and Hove, Darlington, Derby, Leicester, Luton, Milton Keynes, Poole, Portsmouth, Rutland, Southampton, Stoke-on- Trent and Thamesdown - have elections for shadow authorities, with Labour defending the bulk of the seats. Scotland, Wales, London, the county councils and two-thirds of English districts are not involved.

The Conservatives seek to improve on their dire result last year

Comparison with 1992, the last time most of these seats were fought and when the Tories did well - is complicated by the new unitary authorities. Labour will seek to make comparisons with 1991 - the last round before the last general election, when they were neck and neck with the Tories.